It must be about ten years ago now when, stuck in a dead-end job and wondering what I wanted to do with myself, I decided that I wanted to write manuals for gadgets.
I had some experience in technical writing, I had a love of gadgets, and I felt that I could turn the terrible guides that came with a typical piece of technology into something that would actually be useful.
So, I started working on building up a portfolio and spoke to some people in that line of work. Generally doing my research — who is doing it well? Where is it all going? (Why are they so terrible?) But I learned three things;
- Technology was going mainstream. iPods were fairly new at the time, and nobody needed a manual for an iPod. But as more people wanted the gadgets, there would be more need for help for people who wanted the gadgets, but didn't love the gadgets.
- If printing something the size of a phone book containing instructions in every imaginable language and ship them all over the world seemed like a good idea, then having a better manual, in full colour (including videos and interactive elements) available online seemed like a great idea. (So I started learning about web technologies instead.
- The reason those manuals are terrible isn't because they are being translated from Japanese. Its because 90% of the work done by the people who write them is writing for engineers. Engineers and
The second two made me change direction - 2. because I got caught up in web technologies, and 3. because the actual job of writing the kind of documentation I thought I could do well would involve doing another job which I thought would directly harm my ability to do what I wanted to do well.
The first point seems to be having a strange impact on gadgets in general though.
Russell Davies has documented his recent experience of buying a new gadget. (Spoiler: His discovery was that "the manual" hasn't gone online. Its just gone.)
The thing I find most alarming is that the gadget he's bought appears to be a digital camera, made by one of the biggest consumer electronics brands in the world.
Dedicated digital cameras are currently in danger of becoming one of those gadgets that suddenly gets very old and dies - like VHS recorders in the age of Sky+, or portable CD players in the age of iPods. Whether there is a place for the dedicated digital camera in the age of smartphones remains to be seen.
Actually, its not quite that simple. Sky+ is better than VHS. iPods are better than portable CD players in certain ways. Probably not in terms of how good the sound is though - the music on iPods (and other MP3 players) is — usually — compressed. The amount of music that fits on there is more important than the fidelity of the sound.
Dedicated cameras are generally better than smartphones. I say "generally" because it depend on what you want from a camera. If you want;
- Better ISO for low-light picture quality
- More space for storage (and hot-swappable SD cards)
- Good zoom lens
- Adjustable aperture/shutter speed
- Specialised features
- RAW images
…then you're probably thinking of dedicated compact cameras as "better" than smarphones.
But, if you want;
- A camera that is always with you
- Something to show your pictures as well as take them
- Quick sharing online (as soon as you've taken the picture)
- Ability to add titles, comments and conversations around your pictures
…then you might well be thinking about investing that £100-200 in a better smartphone, instead of a new camera.
But here is the problem. Apart from the zoom lens (which is pretty straightforward to use), all of those benefits of dedicated cameras need some sort of explanation. The typical person (who has never read a photography book, taken a class, followed a photography blogger, joined something like a Flickr community etc.) needs to be told what those features are before they can figure out why they would want them, when they should think about them, and how to actually use them.
So, maybe that isn't where cameras are going. Maybe they are all about convenience — point-and-shoot for the masses, who are never going to read the manual (whether its a multi-lingual tome or an interactive online experience) and don't want a £600 telephone?
It doesn't look like it. Camera complexity seems to not just be a selling point — it isn't even a choice.
But camera manufacturers don't seem constitutionally capable of making a super-simple camera. They must be deeply convinced that the complexity of the feature set (which certainly does appeal to a lot of us) is an indivisible part of how they add value to their product, and the temptation to add more and more is something they can't forswear even for one product. I mean, with hundreds of cameras on the market, wouldn't you think they could make one that was super-simple, just for that segment of the population that wants it? And market it that way. You'd think. But no.
I think it's one of the "stealth reasons" why cellphones are encroaching on the camera market so rapidly. Not the only reason, not the main reason, but a reason. (I also think that as cameraphones gain an ever-enlarging share of the camera market, the cameras in them will inexorably get more complicated.)
I can only assume that the likes of Sony either believe that people today don't need a manual, because they can just google for a general "how to use a camera" blog post and figure out what they need to know. Or, that they are making gadgets like iPods — so simple and intuitive that they don't need manuals or handbooks.
So, thats the situation for the future of "manuals";
- Being written by the worst possible writers — people who don't write for "normal people"
- Its existence is an indication that the gadget isn't good enough
- Seems to be worth less than the paper its printed on
I'd say that things aren't looking too good for a well documented future for gadgets…